While we tried to mention some nuances from the countries we visited in our Fast Facts posts, we had a few unshared regional discoveries that we I (let’s not drag poor Stephan into this) also found important enough to want to pass on. Of course, the following entry primarily focuses on my two favorite topics – restroom customs and environmental awareness – so I guess it’s another one of those ‘blush and/or roll your eyes’ posts. Don’t let that discourage you, though – read on and hopefully at least a few of you will uncover something useful…
- You really can live on a shoe-string budget in Southeast Asia. Before leaving, we had read so many travel blogs that claimed you could live on as little as $20/day in this region, but we always kind of wondered if it could possibly be true. Well, we quickly learned that it was, in fact, an attainable feat. We found a number of reasonable, dormitory-style hostels from Thailand to Vietnam where you could find a bed for only $6–8 USD/night. As we wandered around Houay Xai, Laos, scoping out accommodations with a fellow backpacker we met in Chiang Rai, we stumbled on a place offering a mattress on the dormitory floor for only $4. Obviously it wasn’t the most comfortable option, but our budget-minded buddy jumped on the opportunity to save a few bucks. Food is similarly inexpensive throughout Southeast Asian countries, though we found our cheapest café eats in Cambodia and Vietnam. At Lilypop, a small restaurant in Siem Reap (Cambodia), we were served large (and delicious) portions of fried rice for only $1.50 USD. With that and a couple of fruit smoothies, a tasty dinner for two could be enjoyed for about $6 USD. From Bangkok to Hanoi, a hearty street food meal or a fresh fruit smoothie from a shabby push cart would often cost only $1–2 USD, allowing you to sample a bevy of local favorites for only a few bucks a day. And while we were not keen to do the shared-space hostels, we were able to live very comfortably and keep the budget to about $40–48/day for two people (we found a number of gorgeous guesthouses (private room + bath) for $15–20/night).
Note: One thing we were interested to learn, was that it’s actually much more expensive to shop at the grocery store and cook your own food than it is to eat out. The street food is just so cheap that we ate out the entire time we were in Asia. Likewise, the AirBnB rooms with a kitchen were also more expensive… and with no need for a kitchen, we abandoned AirBnB for all of Asia.
- While I love a lot of things about Thailand, it seems the country could desperately use a comprehensive course in sustainable tourism. This troublesome issue came to our attention in April, during a visit to some of the small Andaman Sea islands off Koh Lanta. It is readily apparent that the daily number of tourists on the tiny islands is far too high to maintain. We found the paramount example to be Emerald Cave (Morakot Cave) – a natural, hidden grotto surrounded on all four sides by the towering cliffs of a limestone islet. Both the watery cave entrance and narrow strip of interior, white-sand beach were jammed with people, almost to the point of not being able to move. It was such a hellish sight that we didn’t even take a single photograph. Along some of the other beaches, tourists littered and smoked (in turn, generating more debris) as if they were standing in a giant rubbish pail. Perhaps most disheartening, though, was when we watched some of the small boats dropping anchor directly on the fragile coral reefs. When we jumped in to snorkel, we could see first-hand some of the inexcusable damage. While our boat moored a fair distance from the edge of the reef, I was immediately filled with regret for having contributed in any way to the economic prosperity of the visibly exploited region.
About a month later, on May 17th, I stumbled upon a CNN article that really hammered home the amount of damage Thai tour operators are inflicting upon their vulnerable ocean ecosystems. The article announced that Thai officials had indefinitely closed Koh Tachai, one of the Similan Islands, due to extensive damage from tourist operations (e.g. gasoline in the water, coral damage, and littering). While the article seemed to candidly accuse tourists for the island’s damages, I don’t think Thailand’s tourism management is without some culpability. For me, the most maddening line from the article is a quote from Tunya Nethithammakul, Thailand’s director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife & Plant Conservation, who defended that “many of the islands in Similan National Park would have been closed soon anyway due to the monsoon season.” To me, that shows a huge lack of concern for fixing the root of the problem, and essentially translates to, ‘eh, you know… the island will get a break for few months and we’ve already got all the dough in our pockets, so no big deal.’ Furthermore, while many tourists are certainly not respectful of the environment, Thai management (or lack thereof) is the one permitting upwards of 2,000 tourists per day on an island with a capacity of only a few hundred. When you visit the country’s southern beaches, it’s easy to see that they are so blinded by tourist dollars that they ignore proper environmental practices while also, of lesser consequence, creating an unpleasant experience for visitors (with overcrowding, uncontrolled refuse, etc.). If the country can’t find a way to resolve these preventable problems, it is not only going to destroy precious and irreplaceable ecosystems, but also its own livelihood; tourists are no longer going to flock to the area when the natural beauty is all but destroyed. It really seems like a heartbreaking catastrophe, and I truly hope someone can step in before all is lost forever.
Link to CNN article: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/17/travel/thailand-koh-tachai-island-closed/
- Independent hiking in Asia was often difficult, if not altogether impossible. Sadly, a wide swath of the region is still littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) from wars half a century ago, and many of the rural areas that are rich in lush forests and wildlife are simply unsafe to visit.
- Public restrooms throughout Asia and a large part of Europe are typically not for use free of charge. We first encountered the obligatory restroom fee at a bus station in Thailand, and we continued to see public facilities charge a nominal sum throughout Europe – until we arrived in the U.K. and Ireland, where bathrooms were once again gratis. Typically, an attendant sat at a small table collecting the coins (anywhere from $0.10 to $0.50 USD, depending on location), though in Europe we also saw a couple of unmanned turnstiles where you inserted your coins. That said, we’d recommend carrying some change on you for those occasional emergency bathroom runs. Additionally, if traveling throughout Southeast Asia specifically, it would also behoove you to have a small stash of toilet paper on you at all times. While bathrooms in most guesthouses accommodate the Western standard of using toilet paper, very few public restrooms provide any bathroom tissue. As mentioned in a previous blog, the standard staple here is not tissue, but rather the dreaded “bum gun” (the sink sprayer-turned-nether regions cleaner). If you’re not game for a very public crotch soaking, grab a roll or two of camping toilet paper.
- This is perhaps an over-share for the male readers out there, but I consider it super valuable information to share with my fellow women travelers. If you think you’ll find tampons in Southeast Asia, go ahead and put that thought to rest right now. Even though I kind of assumed I’d be able to find the little goodies in Asia, I crammed as many as I possibly could into my pack during our last few days in Australia. If airport security unzipped any compartment of my nylon sack for a quick check, they likely were treated to an explosion of tampon confetti… kind of like those compressed ‘snakes in a peanut can’ gags. Anyway, was I ever happy to have that stash! I looked for tampons in dozens of stores (supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and shops that catered toward Westerners) across four countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), and never found a one. When I finally ran out of my monthly supplies in Hanoi, I was forced to dig decades into the past and pick up some uber-large pads. In a previous blog entry, I raved at length about the practicality of my skimpy little thongs. Well, do you know how well a colossal pad works with those babies?! There’s not near enough fabric for the pad to stick to, so after a couple of hours the stupid thing is glued to your crack… not to mention that the weight of said pad pulls your underpants down with every step you take. Additionally, as it was a constant 110°F there, you constantly felt like you had swamp ass in addition to your droopy drawers. I mean, I certainly didn’t feel at all self-conscious waddling around the streets of Hanoi, incessantly pulling at the seat of my athletic shorts. Ugh… it reminded me of the time I got an MMR booster when I was in preschool – after which I promptly saw my bus driver in the supermarket as I was rubbing my sore fanny, eyes still red and puffy from battling Nurse Rosemary with my trusty stuffed rabbit (clearly that wasn’t a scarring incident or anything). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in addition to be being bulky and uncomfortable, the diaper-like liners preclude any and all water activities… wicked bummer. Sorry, Asia – you’ve got a whole host of amazing things to offer, but the narrow range of feminine hygiene products just isn’t one of them. Ladies, pack the monthly goods if you make a visit.